Notes on Communal Bathing

By Aditya Dev Sood

Image In the summer of 1991, I visited the Rudas Baths for the first time. The guidebooks had indicated that it was one of the major attractions of Budapest and one of the few architectural remnants of Turkish domination over the region in the 1500s. Kurt, David, Russell and I, four college friends from the University of Michigan, entered an odd-shaped building with a shallow dome tucked into a low mountain soaring above the banks of the Danube.

Attendants dressed in white uniforms accommodated our flailing German, and a small misshapen man with grey stubble led us to a series of lockers, whose peeling and sickly green colored paint are still vivid in my memory. Through his gesticulations and barked commands, we understood that we had to strip naked and wear a kind of loin-cloth or diaper that hung loose in front and behind from a chord at the waist. It seemed oddly Egyptian, and insufficient, given how much of the buttock it left exposed. We had quick showers and crossed a foot-cleansing trough en route through to the central hall.

Few architectural spaces have had such an impact on me. The square hall was awash in light streaking through hexagonal holes punctured into the shallow dome that was its roof. Below, most of the area was taken up by an octagonal stepped pool surrounded by an arcade of peaked Turkish arches. In the four resulting corners of the hall were triangular pools filled with water of different temperatures, ranging from the cool to the scalding. Behind and beyond the hallways, in a warren of intersecting hallways were additional saunas, steam rooms, massage rooms and a frigidarium. The water in the central pool smelled sulfuric and mineral. All four of us were hushed for a while, but soon began unwinding on our own, languishing in different parts of the complex, enjoying the water, the light, the space.

In the hottest corner pool I unfurled like a tadpole, my spine unbending for the heat, limbs outstretching and retracting as if of their own accord. Perhaps I wore an idiot smile of unreflective joy. Fingers of light tickled the shut eyelids of a body whose mind has otherwise released it. The brain was enjoying being slowly pickled in a slightly sulfuric vat.

We later explored rest of the amenities of the Rudas complex, and took souvenir photographs of the four of us in the Egyptian loin-cloth outfit. Showering and dressing to leave, we exulted in this new experience. The Bath was such a success, and the overall experience so unique for us, that we resolved to come back before we left Budapest at the end of the week.

That Friday evening we returned, already cheerful with anticipation. We changed and showered, but even as we entered the main hall of the octagonal pool, we knew something was wrong. The four of us felt the stares of the men in and around the pool hall like arrows. Instinctively, we stuck together, ending up sitting in a row along one side of the pool, yet hesitating to get in. In the middle of the pool we saw that some of the men were playing around with each other, but not in a way we recognized – they were playing with each others’ teats and laughing. Now we noticed a couple of men discretely masturbating one another inside the pool. Around us a series of men sought to make eye-contact and initiate conversation. I remember putting my hands on my knees with elbows out, as if to block them off and away. We moved from pool to pool, but this scene was everywhere. We gave up, showered and dressed, and left confused about how this experience could have been so profoundly different from the last time we had visited.

Years later, in Finland, I remember being quite diffident about my first experience of the sauna, insisting on keeping my swimming trunks on at all times. The sauna was terrifically hot, causing all of us on the bench to double over as we tried to keep our heads down. We perspired together so long as we could take it, and finally ran out in a loud group down a long ramp to jump into the icy cold sea. At first I thought you were supposed to swim, and tried vainly to put one arm in front of the other, free-style. But the body had already seized up and was doing all it could to keep you afloat. The spine, moreover, was now in spasm, pushing a big head-rush up through the medulla and on into the forehead. Suddenly aflush, there were no thoughts to be had. As in the hot Rudas Baths, the cold waters of the Baltic reset the mindbody, allowing it several hours of interregnum, before the self finally returned to once again enslave consciousness.

The heat, the cold, the heat, the cold, the heat the cold. This is the rhythm of sauna that I have come to enjoy on every subsequent visit to Helsinki, in a seemingly endless variety of saunas in every corner of the city. The assertively proletarian Kotiharjun Sauna, the quietly selective and members-only Saunaseura, and the art-nouveau fantasy that is the Yrjönkadun Uimahalli stand apart, but there have been others. Whether alone or in a small or large group, the experience of sauna appears not only to restore the mind and body to a healthful if temporary balance, but also to allow a special bonding among those who have partaken of it together.

In the Kotiharjun Sauna with my curator-friend Juha, we met a mailman who boasted that he had first visited this sauna on the Christmas of the day of his birth, and that he had visited every week since. He was with friends, a security guard, a driver and an unemployed man. Among them they contrived to tell us the one about the Finn, the Dane and the Swede in the sauna, the punch line being that the Swede could never take it when it got hot. This, in fact, was also the experience of a young Swedish man living in Helsinki, who told me that every time he left a sauna room he heard unkind laughing in his wake. While communal bathing can allow bonding, it can evidently also allow the creation and reinforcement of boundaries. The permeability, motility and capacity for recombinance of these social boundaries — the inclusiveness or exclussiveness of communal bathing — can determine the quality of their societies’ civic and public life.

At the retro-chic Kosmos restaurant in Helsinki one evening, the cloak-check clerk accosted my host Marko about not visiting the Saunaseura of late. It later struck me that this little exchange belied the central role of saunas in the leveling of distinction among its participants. An underlying ideology of egalitarianism, I now think, is also partly behind the request I once received to take off my copper bracelet and the silver amulet around my neck, though at the time, I was told that metal on the body, in the form of rings or even piercings can get so hot from the steam as to scald you. Denuded of clothing and accessories, the body becomes a blank and barren surface. Your own body, other peoples’ bodies, now appear to be illegible, amorphous, accidental, incidental, anonymous. The point is not to socially or sexually present your body, nor read other peoples’ bodies, and this detachment can allow you to better inhabit it.

In this aspect, it strikes me that communal bathing may be distinguished from other forms of social bathing, including the modern practices of hitting the beach, taking a swim, and cruising the waterslides of Great America. On the other hand, the limn between social and communal forms of bath can be difficult to create and then to sustain, and their conflation, I now understand, resulted in the alternating use of the Rudas Baths as a site for both forms of activity, evidently at different times of the day and week.

Also important, perhaps, is the degree of activity involved: in water sport, the body acts, negotiating waves or pushing water around; in bath the body is at rest, and only the extremes of the medium or the transitions through media can cause change. No longer acting or behaving in expressly social or sexual terms, the body is now patient, uncoiling, becoming. And having found itself, having overcome the shock to the system that can be that state, the body and mind are now more open, more receptive, more attuned to the physical, natural and biological world, and consequently even to the social world of acting and behaving men and women.

In the wake of these extreme mindbody experiences, the curious presence of other minds, working in languages impenetrable but ways still obvious, can be glimpsed fleetingly. It is as near as I have come to experiencing those 'oceanic feelings' described by Rolland and discussed by Freud, that I had once struggled to comprehend. The sense of all humanity being linked, the sense of participating in its species-being, a feeling that Marx had likely once known, but had perhaps lost touch with in the British Library. The possibility, inscribed within all social systems and recognized by Durkheim, of standing outside of yourself, in ecstasy.

Unlike the sublime experience of nature, say in a National Park, or on the island of Bali, or in the Himalayas, opportunities for communal bathing are not escapes from the urban jungle that we, once riverine apes, have exiled ourselves into. They are human artifacts, achieved within the very same social and civic sphere of which they allow brief transcendence. And while their quality and character may vary, it is only by plunging in and participating in their opportunity that you will be able to enhance and further elaborate their experience.

A moment’s reflection will likely reveal an opportunity for communal bathing in your own milieu, whether or not they be formally advertised as such. Perhaps you will find it in the ghats of Haridwar, where the bones of your deceased relative are even now being poured into the cold and swift current of the Ganga. Or in an Ongsen in Tokyo. Or, in fact, at a Hamam, anywhere from Istanbul to Lille. Perhaps you will find it at your local gym in the form of the gender-segregated showers you take before you go swimming. Enjoy!